Is that German?
Given that several of my friends grew up in northeast Arkansas, I would make a yearly Christmas-break pilgrimage to visit them and their families. My general rule: see as many people as possible, cause as little fuss as possible, and stay no more than two nights at any one house. Even under those circumstances, I could easily be gone for a week.
In the years that have passed, I've managed to forget all but the most amusing—or embarrassing—moments that occurred during those trips. I distinctly remember the drives Monica and I made back and forth to Paragould, and my complete and utter inability to use my normally-excellent poker face against Matthew. Matthew, of course, beat me senseless at poker and made me laugh the entire time.
(Luckily for me, I know Matthew well enough to know better than to play poker against him for money. Ever.)
But Susan's phone call reminded me of one of the most intimidating and embarrassing moments I've ever had on a road trip, one which left me horribly embarrassed at the time, but which I now find hilarious.
To understand my state of mind when this happened, you have to understand that I came from a completely normal, albeit rural, middle-class family. Two respectable white-collar jobs and some family land meant that we lived comfortably, although neither lavishly nor ostentatiously.
My academic scholarships, which were fairly large, allowed me to attend a college that would otherwise have cost well more than we could have afforded. At this school, there were two different camps of students: the affluent students who could easily afford the tuition, and the 'achievers,' the middle-class (or lower, but those were rare) students who were there by virtue of financial aid or academic scholarships.
For the most part, everyone dressed the same, but you could tell the differences in the 'partying' budgets and the type (or absence) of vehicles. There was, at least, a thin veneer of equality between the students—as long as you didn't look too closely, that is.
Susan, I knew, came from the other side of the financial continuum; her father was a doctor. (My faulty memory says that he might have been a gastroenterologist, but I am undoubtedly wrong.) When Susan said that while I would be staying with them, I would be staying in the attic, a lump rose immediately in my throat.
The attic? Who the hell put guests in an attic? What is this, Dickens?
At this point, I should have begun to suspect that I was a bit out of my depth here. But, in my innocence, I did not.
Susan's directions were spot-on, and when I pulled up to the house, I began to understand that their concept of "attic" might not quite match the definition that I'd grown up with. Let's just say their house was a little bigger than the houses I was accustomed to visiting.
I parked my little purple Sundance in the driveway and brought in my one bag. Susan showed me to the attic, which turned out to be fully-furnished and had its own kitchenette and bathroom, and we settled in to talk for a little while before we went downstairs for dinner.
When we came down to the dining room, Susan's mother greeted us with boiled shrimp and cocktail sauce—both weaknesses of mine. We chatted for a little while, snacked on the shrimp, and once Susan's father came downstairs, the four of us settled in for dinner.
Remember what I said about those little quirks of memory, and how they make all but the best (or worst) moments fade away? In the years that have passed, I have forgotten every detail about what we ate, or what the room looked like, but I do remember facing Susan's mother across the table.
I was trying to remind myself to maintain a basic veneer of etiquette, like not commenting on how bloody awesome the house was, or (heaven forbid!) falling face-first into my food and gnawing straight down to the plate, and I thought I was doing fairly well for myself. I thought, even, that my mother would be proud of me for the way I was conducting myself.
…and then it came. The Question.
Susan's mother smiled sweetly at me (a smile that I now know is just as dangerous as Susan's) and said, "I walked outside after you got here, and noticed the stickers on the back of your car. There was one that I didn't recognize. It said 'fukengrüven.' Is that German?"
I look over at Susan, who is trying so hard to repress a howl of laughter that I think that her face will split apart from the pressure. I look at Susan's father, who, behind his beard, is also quite amused.
I look at Susan's mother, who is also smiling.
I realize that everyone at the table knows exactly what that bumper sticker means, and they are just waiting to see how I'm going to handle it. In my case, I handled it by turning bright red, taking a drink from my glass, and quietly choking out the words "No, it isn't." Then very, very rapidly changing the subject. Suddenly even discussing the minutiae of the snow forecast was preferable to trying to explain that no, my bumper sticker wasn't German, it was just obscene.
Susan's never let me forget this. Even after the bumper sticker came down.